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Gutters: An Evolution in Thought

EGrumer's picture

Before I began this class, I would have said that I am not genre-ist.  As I have mentioned in earlier posts, I read, and have respect for, much-maligned genres such as romance, science-fiction, and comics.  And yet, in some ways I do believe that I am genre-ist: not prejudiced against content, but against form.

In Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, Scott McCloud speaks of mistaking the message (content) the messenger (form) (McCloud 6). What I have been doing is similar – not disregarding the message because of the messenger, but rather keeping the messenger locked up in a little cupboard of literary analysis all its own.  While I have thought of comics in terms of prose literature, and used non-comics based terms and ideas to think of comics, I have not done the opposite.  Comics have remained in their cupboard.  I have not used concepts of phrases that specifically come from the world of comics to look at literature in non-comic form.  This impulse sprang, I believe, from a deep-seated belief that one format was inherently better – more literary.  It was genre-ist.

It was also, of course, wrong.

An off-hand comment about gutters, in class last week, got me thinking about gutters as a literary device.  In Understanding Comics, McCloud defines gutters as “the space between the panels” (McCloud 66).*  The gutter “plays host to much of the magic and mystery that are at the very heart of comics,” because it is here that the reader fills in the blanks (McCloud 66).  Gutters are the nothing between something, and the reader, jumping from something to something, experiences the gutters as well.  Gutters “fracture both time and space, offering a jagged, staccato rhythm of unconnected moments.  But closure allows us to connect these moments and mentally construct a continuous, unified reality” (McCloud 67).

Gutters seemed to me, at first, to be a purely comics-based phenomenon.  Because other literatures were not graphical, they had no need of gutters, and consequently had no gutters.  This was too narrow, literal a view of what gutters truly are.  Gutters, in their way, are “breaks.”  They are necessary breaks in the narrative of comics without which there would be no comics.  They allow the reader to go from one image to another and thread those images along into a continuous narrative, breaking the thing in order to build it.

But gutters also appear in books that are not comics.  There, they are not thin, blank spaces between pictures, but they are breaks in time and space nonetheless.  Gutters are those places where the narrative jumps, and the reader jumps with it, filling in the blank spaces to gain a picture of what was not said.  These literary gutters appear in several forms, as exemplified by Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit from the Goon Squad.

Egan’s book is constructed out of short stories about interconnecting characters; it makes use of gutters both within each chapter, or short story, and between the chapters.**  The entirety of A Visit from the Good Squad covers the span of a generation.  For the most obvious correlation, gutters are line breaks – physical spaces between paragraphs that even look like gutters, and signify to the reader that the next paragraph is a jump.  In the first chapter, “Found Objects,” a line break takes the reader from Sasha’s thoughts on her therapy, to a new paragraph, in which Sasha and Alex walk across a hotel lobby (Egan 7).  It is a break in both space and time.  Likewise, there are gaps in the content given to the reader, which also constitute gutters.  The story of Sasha’s married life is mostly told in the gutters of A Visit from the Goon Squad; the narrative leaves her as an unmarried young woman, and then picks her story up again in Chapter Twelve, “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” which is narrated a girl named Alison who turns out to be Sasha’s daughter.  Thus, the reader must fill in the blanks of Sasha’s life, to find how she has grown to be a mature, married mother-of-two, living in a different decade and a different part of the country than when the reader saw her last.  The reader performs the same mental acrobatics, here, that he or she would in reaching a gutter, in a comic book.  (Told in a graphic format, that of a PowerPoint presentation, this chapter is available on Egan’s website).

A third literary device that is a form of gutters is prolepsis, which Egan makes particular use of in Chapter Four, “Safari” (which is available online through The New Yorker).  For example, after showing Charlie as a lost young teenager vacation with her dysfunctional family for most of the story, Egan breaks away for a single paragraph to say that:

Charlie doesn’t yet know herself. Four years from now, at eighteen, she’ll join a cult across the Mexican border whose charismatic leader promotes a diet of raw eggs; she’ll nearly die from salmonella poisoning before Lou [her father] rescues her. A cocaine habit will require partial reconstruction of her nose, changing her appearance, and a series of feckless, domineering men will leave her solitary in her late twenties, trying to broker peace between Rolph [her brother] and Lou, who will have stopped speaking. (Egan 80)

Another flash-forward speaks of Rolph’s early death, while another chapter gives the reader Lou’s death.  These are the only moments of Charlie’s future given.  What the reader is left with are holes in the narrative, where he or she must again imagine what happened.  The four years between the events of “Safari” and Charlie joining a cult, how Lou finds out about the cult, and how Charlie becomes addicted to cocaine are, amongst other things, are left to the reader’s imagination.  These stories are in the gutters of A Visit from the Goon Squad.

Gutters are not prolepsis, but prolepsis is a manifestation of gutters.  (It is entirely possible for prolepsis to be used in comics, as well.  Marjane Satrapi’s Chicken with Plums, for example, makes use of prolepsis to say what happens to the protagonist’s young son, Mozaffar, when the boy grows up and has a family of his own [Satrapi 53-7].)  In flashing-forward, the story makes a break in space and/or time, just as a gutter does.

Likewise, the shifts in point-of-view also cause gutters.  Egan shifts viewpoint both from chapter to chapter (e.g., Chapter Twelve, the only chapter told from Alison’s point-of-view) and within chapters themselves – as in Chapter Four, where the safari is seen through the eyes of multiple chapters, both children and adults.

When I first read A Visit from the Goon Squad, several months again, I did not see gutters.  When I first read Understanding Comics, I did not see how gutters could apply to books that were not comic books.  However, through this class, my thought processes, and ways of looking at different literary forms, are evolving.  Gutters are a term that refers specifically to something about comics.  And yet, they can also be applied to the narrative breaks in non-comic books, just as literary terms like prolepsis can be applied to comics.  Despite the format, comics and other books are essentially the same – both tell stories.  And, in telling stories, they must leave some things unsaid, up to the reader’s imagination.


*I have omitted emphasis, in quoting from Understanding Comics.

 **When Egan spoke here at Bryn Mawr last semester, she mentioned originally writing what would become A Visit from the Goon Squad as a single short story, then writing another connected short story, then a third.  “Safari,” for example, was published as a stand-alone short story in The New YorkerA Visit from the Goon Squad was published a novel, however, not as a collection of short stories.  The genre distinction of which this book is seems consequently a bit blurred.

Works Cited

Egan, Jennifer. A Visit from the Good Squad. New York: Knopf, 2010. Print.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: William Morrow, 1994. Print.

Satrapi, Marjane. Chicken with Plums. New York: Pantheon, 2006. Print.


Anne Dalke's picture


I am smiling very broadly here, egrumer, as I watch the evolution of a "genre-ist" from someone who was 'prejudiced against form" to someone who has found a way to translate --and appreciate the translation--of the technical dimensions of one form into another: "Gutters," you have realized, are not only a "comics-based phenomenon," but a transferable, and universally used, literary device; they mark "those places where the narrative jumps, and the reader jumps with it, filling in the blank spaces to gain a picture of what was not said."

I'd like to see you give credit here to KT, whose question--are there more gutters in the short story – more for us to bring on our own?--offered the first step in your evolution out of "genre-ism." Yeah for collaborative thinking here!

...And, it occurs to me (picking up on the debate we had after your last web event, about the possibility --if not the actuality--of blogs sponsoring conversations) that this is a GREAT example of how an on-line forum can enable collaborative thinking more effectively than a blog might do....

Anyhow, back to your particular case @ hand. Egen's novel (growing, as it did, from a series of short stories) works as a great illustration of this device of "guttering," and you do a fine job of showing multiple ways in which this happens. And of course now you've gotten me in thinking of multiple other places, in multiple other fictions and non-fictional texts, where this process is @ work…what about the endings of all narratives, which of course never end, as we imagine a "real" future for characters who never existed….? (The critique of "the marriage plot" by contemporary feminists would be one great example here, as well as the "happy ever after" of fairy tales….)

Even more exciting for me is the way in which this expanded analysis of yours offers another way of thinking about "breaks": as sites where, lacking models, we can fill in something new. So I'm taking the liberty of linking this event of yours to The Breaking Project….